By Saeed Naqvi
The entire lobby area, the vast cigar lounge merging into a large breakfast station at Amman’s Intercontinental was packed mostly with young Jordanian women with flaxen blond and black hair. There were men too, some from the diplomatic corps.
Each guest had a red or whit wine glass. This was logical since it was billed as a wine tasting party, a sort of monthly promotional affair at one of Amman’s premiere hotels. Each guest had to pay 24 Jordanian dinars which works out to about Rs. 2,500. Every table had been sold out.
Those denied the pleasures of wine tasting by sheer pressure of numbers, fell back on an even more exotic indulgence: smoking the “sheesha” or hubble-bubble (hukkah), with the aroma of apple or apricot tobacco wafting through the richly decorated Lebanese restaurants, celebrated as the very best. Here too the presence of young women, unescorted, at four of five separate tables, inhaling the aromatic hubble-bubble with an expert sense of pleasure.
There was nothing cheap or inelegant about the women, probably young executives or even house wives.
What did look out of place were a group of men occupying the central table, obviously Omani as was clear from their decorated headgear. They did not laugh raucously as the women did. Nor did they smoke the “sheesha”. Unlike others at the restaurants, they did not show any interest in that gift of the Ottoman Empire called Raki in Turkey, Arrack in Jordan and Lebanon, Ouzo in Greece and Pastice in France.
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If all of this comes across as hedonism, a sort of callousness in the midst of so much human tragedy associated with the Middle-East, we are missing out on atleast two points.
First, the specific conditions prevailing in Jordan. Throughout the turbulence since the creation of the Israeli state, the trauma of 1967, the duet of King Hussain and Prince Hassan and now the young King Abdullah have performed a nimble pirouette of diplomacy and Statesmanship.
Beirut, at its prime the world’s most cosmopolitan city, has been riven with sectarianism and decay particularly since the Israeli invasion of 1982. Amman became a partial refuge for the Beirut elite.
Since Desert Storm in 1992, Jordan encashed its goodwill with the international community to help the suffering Iraqis by maintaining regular supply of essential goods along the 1000 mile (thousand mile) Amman-Baghdad Highway.
After the 2003 occupation of Iraq, Jordan provided hospitality to atleast a million. Ask a friend in Amman today to suggest a good restaurant and he will suggest “Mazgouf”, the charcoal grilled fish Baghdadis were so proud of.
The strength of Jordan has been its acute awareness of its geographical vulnerabilities. It was with this appraisal of his nation of six million (80 percent of whom are Palestinians) that King Hussain signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994.
It is this intelligent management of its circumstances that has provided those Jordanians at Intercontinental with the space to breathe easy.
Second, we sometimes underestimate the capacity of homo sapiens to adjust to the most severe circumstances as conditions of normalcy.
Soon after Operation Desert Storm, hotels in Baghdad were thriving with wedding parties.
During the Nicaragua war, the place to find the Commandante (revolutionary political leaders) was the downtown night club.
The apparent normalcy of Ramallah and Jerusalem is in the midst of intense inner tension. I was not allowed to visit Gaza. But I am certain that even in that sad place, folks sit around fires and share a joke.
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The most annoying aspect of the Middle-East is the endless delusion about elections. Hamas ruled Gaza will not accept local body elections announced by Israeli occupied West Bank. Iraq is in convulsions about the possible participation of former Baathists as candidates in elections campaigning which begins in mid February.
“If Baathists are Kosher why not Hamas which won a landslide victory in 2006?” Asks Samir Mahmoud, a Palestinian in Jordan.
We all know about the elections in Afghanistan and the issue of legitimacy surrounding Zardari in Pakistan.
As for President Ahmedinejad, the important point under discussion in these parts is not his election. Egyptian intelligence has reported preparations for a military strike against Iranian nuclear installations.
With 2,00,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq?
If these intelligence leaks are not the real thing, they are certainly part of psychological warfare!
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